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San Clemente Journal

Borneo & Bali

Jun 06, 2018 11:28AM ● By Donia Moore

View of Labuan Bajo Harbor, gateway to UNESCO World Heritage Site Komodo National Park.

by Donia Moore, photos by Jeanne O’Grady

Borneo is off the beaten path - way, way off. The third largest island on the planet lies north of Java, west of Sulawesi and east of Sumatra. Politically, it is divided between three countries - Malaysia and Brunei in the north and Indonesia in the south. Nearly 11,000 species of flowering plants have been identified there. New species of plants and animals are regularly discovered every month in the dense rain forests, and new atolls are continually rising or sinking into the South China Sea.

The Chinese influenced Borneo for over 2,000 years, They were followed by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British as they fought to dominate the rich treasures of the spice trade. But the real treasure of Borneo is its people, equally diverse, but fiercely united in their efforts to protect their natural resources.

Jeffrey is the grandson of a Dayak head-hunter on Borneo. “I am a 7th generation descendant,” he explains. His grandfather regaled him with stories of the prowess of this unconventional way of life. He grew up learning the recipe for preparing the heads after they were separated from the warrior bodies of their enemies. Head hunting was reserved for the Malayan or Philipino pirates that frequently attacked and destroyed their villages, killed the residents and stole their women. 
It was not a ritual that was taken lightly, nor was it practiced widely outside of a small area of Borneo. It was deemed highly desirable for a tribesman who wished to take a bride. If the man had a collection of skulls, his future father-in-law would be reassured that the would-be groom could protect his bride and family from the outlaws that plagued the villages. The practice was outlawed with the coming of the British in the 19th century. So they say…

Well-educated and respected, Jeffrey works as a tourist guide with a travel company in Kota Kinabalu in northern Borneo. He is passionate about protecting the rain forests and the natural resources of his homeland. Living on one of the most ecologically diverse islands in the world, strict laws have evolved to govern the tribal land’s suspendibility. Shifting cultivation practices have also, until now, ensured that the Dayak forests and agricultural land could quickly regenerate to support future generations. And while the digital age has already dawned on Borneo, modern technology – such as chemicals and explosives - is outlawed for catching fish. Nets, traditional rods and spears are still the preferred tools for the job.

The Dayak’s success at maintaining and protecting once - pristine rainforests and the magnificent animals that inhabit them may also be their downfall. Precious, decades-old, tropical hardwood trees are being harvested at an unsustainable rate before being replaced with swathes of environmentally unsound, single-crop palm-oil and rubber plantations. Biodiversity decreases - and more importantly for the Dayak - their traditional farming lands and hunting grounds are fast disappearing. It’s estimated that well over 30 percent of Borneo’s primary rainforest has vanished over the past 40 years. The rapidly declining, endangered Orang Utan (Man of the Forest) is a victim of this loss of habitat. Palm-oil is inedible for the rain forests’ animals, but is widely used in items for human consumption. The Orang Utan shares approximately 96% DNA with humans.
Wey is dedicated to the success of the turtle conservation program on Selangan Island. In addition to explaining the project, which includes guarding the mother turtles as they come ashore on the beaches to dig their great nests and lay their 40 - 60 eggs, he taught us about the politics of conservation on Borneo. “People eat turtle eggs. They consider them food. The government has begun to subsidize them so that they will eat other foods, but turtle eggs are still preferred. Since only one to two percent of baby turtles will survive, it is very important that we save as many as possible. Many turtle eggs end up on the black market and bring a profit to the sellers.” 

In a move to help the conservation efforts, the Malaysian government purchased nine islands that are actually in Philipine waters, including Selangan. Pointing out several large boats, Wey said “the Malaysian navy is in evidence here to protect our claim to the islands and to restrain efforts by Philippine pirates to retake the islands by force.” 

Ghzolis looks like a Malay pirate and has a laugh that comes from his toes. He took us on river trips through the jungle in a small six-passenger skiff. On one particularly long day of adventures, we stopped in the middle of the river during late afternoon for a lovely surprise. Ever the superb and jolly host, he pulled out a thermos of tea and packages of biscuits and passed them out, with or without sugar for the tea. 

Ghzolis knows the hidden places of the pygmy elephant, the rhinoscerous hornbill, the proboscis monkey and where the few remaining wild Orang Utans nest outside their protected sanctuary at Sepilok. He took us to see them along the banks of the crocodile- filled Kinabatangan River, the second longest river in Borneo. His knowledge of the wild life and the many birds that make their home along the river has taken a lifetime to learn. Professionally trained by the state-run guide school, he shared information with much good humor. He is actively involved with the local village school teaching the children how important it is to protect their native habitat. 

Dr. (Hon) Wong Siew Te founded the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in 2008 and is the drive behind the project. Wong, one of the few Malaysian wildlife biologists who was trained in Taiwan and the U.S.A., has been studying and working on the ecological conservation of the sun bear since 1998. His pioneer studies of sun bears in the Bornean rainforest have taken him into the most threatened wildlife habitat on earth, where fieldwork is exceedingly difficult. 
“I am determined to help Bornean sun bears. The challenge is huge, and I cannot do this alone. I need help, support and allies. Every voice counts and together we can make a difference.”  
Raised on the Penang Peninsula of Malaysia, Dr. Wong completed his DVM in Montana, and is an expert at bear wrangling. He and his staff of 27 are dedicated to saving this rare animal from extinction and reintroducing them to their natural habitat after their rehabilitation from human contact. These are the smallest members of the bear family and almost unknown outside of Malaysia. Currently there are 42 bears at the facility and several have been successfully released into the wild over the last couple of years.

Bali - Beaches, Surfing, and 1,000 Temples
In Bali, off the coast of Borneo, there is a deep religious spirit, based on Hindu teachings but with a distinctly Balinese touch. One of these is the distinctive Balinese play known as Barong, accompanied by the Gemmelong orchestra. The Barong play represents an eternal fight between good and evil spirits, with the goal of returning life to balance and harmony. In Balinese culture, good always triumphs. The costumes are brilliant and the skill of the dancers and musicians is mesmerizing. 

We met Anto there, a former high-school music teacher, now guiding for a better salary. Well educated, and well-spoken, he accompanied us to a Barong/ Kris where we saw a Gemmelong orchestra in action. It consists of many differently tuned gongs and drums.. There is only one company in the world that makes and tunes Gemmelongs and it is in Gianyar, Bali. The instruments are still produced and tuned individually by hand so orders are placed many months in advance. Larger villages have their own Gemmelong orchestras, while smaller villages sometimes have to borrow or hire one when needed for special ritual or holy day events. 
Anto plays the guitar but he also has a talent for the complicated movements of the Gemmelong. “It is so important to teach our children about our culture. Music is often the best way to remind them of how rich it is.”

Laksmi - Guest Relations Manager, and Dani, assistant Curator and Interpretive writer are the guardians of Bali’s outstanding Museum Pasifika. The Museum has an amazing art collection of the Pacific Rim countries interspersed with European masters by artists who made their home here.

Dani is also an archaeologist and well aware of a number of the most recent excavations on Borneo and Bali. Growing up in Java, he was fascinated by the discoveries of pre-historic civilizations in Indonesia and spends his free time studying recent discoveries like those of homo floresiensis, found on Flores Island in Borneo. The rare remains have been dubbed Hobbits by anthropologists The small statured people were approximately a meter tall. It is believed that they lived 60,000 years ago, alongside modern man. Also called Ebu Gogo by the local population, several skeletons have been discovered in a cave on the island where it is believed many of them died in a fire. There have been sightings of some tiny people in the forests and anthropologists surmise it is possible that not all of them died out.

Beny Tagul’s hospitality included a beautiful lunch aboard the boat taking us out to see the Komodo Dragons on crocodile infested Rinca Island. A native of Labuan  Bajo, he has made many trips to both Rinca and to nearby Komodo Island. There are only seven of these three meter long, 1000 pound endangered lizards left on Komodo Island and one can spend all day there and not see them. Beny opted for Rinca Island, within swimming distance for the dragons. The greater food sources on Rinca island can support a much larger population, estimated at approximately 90. Armed only with a large forked tree limb to ward off attacks, Beny’s assistant guarded our flank from the dragons. Beny’s advice about how to avoid a dragon attack? “Run very fast and climb a tree. They are too big to climb trees.” Crocodiles? “Watch where you step.” 
Philipe joined us in Mulu. Fanatically dedicated to supporting and conserving wildlife there, he took us to the Bat cave where we witnessed thousands of bats leaving the cave at sundown to hunt for their nightly rations of insects.

Philipe was raised in a nomadic Dayak tribe. He and his family hunted and gathered wherever food sources led them. From him, we learned the art of making a blowpipe big enough to bring down a deer or bearded pig. “We found everything we needed in the rich forests, from food to shelter to clothing made from fibers. One day I met a teacher who inspired me to become educated and create a better life for my children, and so I became a guide. I hope to send them to school when they are old enough.”

Gustaff is a highly educated former state minister, now retired, who guides on Bali for the pleasure of meeting foreigners. He has traveled to the U.S. once, to San Francisco, but prefers his Balinese home to California’s more frenetic pace. He escorted us to many of the cultural sites on Bali, including the holiest temple on an island of over one thousand temples - The Mother Temple Pura Besakih. The thousand-year-old temple sits 1,000 meters high on the southwestern slope of Mount Agong, Bali’s most active volcano. The mother temple complex contains at least 86 individual temples. 

The celebration of Bali’s Hindu-influenced New Year - Niepe- occurred the day after we arrived in Bali. For this celebration, every one on Bali - tourists included- must stay inside for 24 hours to meditate and pray. Although the major hotels receive dispensations to operate for the tourists, guests must stay in their rooms with the curtains drawn during Niepe Eve. Giant figures of demons and spirits are prepared for Niepe, and on the day before, these huge(some over 10 feet high) paper mache figures are paraded through the villages to collect all the negative spirits and energies and then are cremated so they will be destroyed. Called Ohgo-Ohgos, we found several that had not yet been destroyed. They were truly works of art. 

The people we met on this trip were diverse and fascinating, but one thing they all had in common was their belief in the importance of protecting their seas, their forests, and their culture. I left Borneo with the feeling that their concerted conservation efforts might just pay off.